Donna Tartt excels at turning places of ordinary privilege into places tinged by anxiety and death. In her first novel, The Secret History, a small liberal arts college in New England becomes the playground for a dangerous, elite clique of scholars; in her next novel, The Little Friend, Mother’s Day in a small Mississippi town serves as the backdrop for the discovery of a nine-year-old boy’s hanging.
Though she has written several short stories and essays for magazines such as Harper’s and the Oxford American, little has been seen of Tartt since the publicity blitz that accompanied The Secret History’s publication in 1992. The book became a bestseller, and critics were reservedly enthusiastic.
Tartt had taken on a lot in The Secret History. It was partly a thriller, partly a critique of academe, and was densely packed with literary references from both classical Greek and contemporary literature. Some thought Tartt had bitten off more than she could chew, but she still earned praise for her sheer thematic ambition and her ability to create atmosphere and a driving pace. Ultimately, the book was enough to establish the Mississippi writer as a talent worth watching, and to inspire a handful of devotional web sites that dutifully enumerated her few-and-far-between publications.
The Tartt short stories that have since appeared in magazines show a glimpse of the talent that wowed professors at University of Mississippi – a Christmas pageant goes criminally awry, a former child star goes on what he considers a doomed visit to a hospitalized child – and her essays further reveal her skewed perspective. Finally, in 2002 and a decade after the debut that made her a sensation, Tartt published The Little Friend. The premise, a 12-year-old girl’s effort to avenge the murder of her older brother, shows that Tartt has not shied away from her exploration of the darknesses that lie underneath seemingly harmless facades.
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Tartt's classmates at Bennington College included the writers Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt. It was Ellis who introduced Tartt to his agent, Amanda "Binky" Urban; and it was Urban who started a bidding war for The Secret History that scored Tartt a reported $450,000 advance.
Southern writer Willie Morris was a mentor for Tartt at University of Mississippi, where she spent her freshman year. Morris, who had read some stories of Tartt’s, introduced himself and told her, “I think you’re a genius.” He got her enrolled in a graduate writing seminar, and later encouraged her to transfer to Bennington.
Drawing on their college days, when Tartt would hold alcoholic "teas" in her dorm room, Ellis called his classmate "the only person I know who could drink me under the table" in a 1992 Vanity Fair article. Perhaps Tartt's stamina had something to do with her early "medicine" for the frequent illnesses caused by tonsils that were overdue for removal. Presiding as her nurse, Tartt's great-grandfather gave her regular doses of whiskey and cough syrup containing codeine. "Between the fever and the whiskey and the codeine," wrote Tartt in a Harper's essay, "I spent nearly two years of my childhood submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness."
Signed first editions of The Secret History now run around $100.
Film rights to The Secret History were sold to director Alan Pakula; but Pakula died in 1998, and the project languished until Gwyneth Paltrow expressed interest. The film is now reportedly in production at Miramax under the actress, with Paltrow's brother Jake set to direct.
Tartt on the delay between books, to the BBC: "I can't write quickly. If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality I'd be happy. I'd love to write a book a year but I don't think I'd have any fans.”
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